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An ideal summer read which allows you to get lost in the captivating world of the Seagrove family across the generations during wartime. A magical, historical debut from Joanna Quinn.

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Den scores




546 Pages

Holiday reads are about escaping into an unforgettable and immersive world and so this month we have picked ‘The Whalebone Theatre’, a magical debut novel by Joanna Quinn. Centred round the eccentric upbringing of three children growing up by the Dorset coast, the story begins just as WW1 has finished and ends just as WWII is coming to a close. This book is the ideal summer read which allows you to get lost in the captivating world of the Seagrove family across the generations.

Jasper Seagrove arrives with his new young bride Rosalind at Chilcombe, the family home in Dorset, following the death of his first wife leaving him a both a widower and a father of a young daughter. The story follows the trials and tribulations of the family across death, marriage and war. At the heart of the story are three young children. The eldest Cristabel is bright, feisty and quite the tomboy, Digby is artistic and sensitive like his mother Rosalind and Flossie is a contented daydreamer. All have varying different parents but together lead a rather wild and dysfunctional life within the confines of Chilcombe, brought up by a French governess whilst the adults host glamorous parties. Added to the mix is Taras, a Bohemian artist who lives with two women and a troupe of wild children. One day 12-year-old Crista discovers a beached whale and instantly tries to claim it has her own. With the help of Taras, who sees something special in Cristabel, they preserve the whale’s carcass to make an outdoor theatre and the family become well known for hosting productions, Greek and then Shakespeare, creating imaginary worlds for the local audience. Whilst Digby is a natural acting star, Crista has a talent for directing.

The story moves to the war and correspondence between the family, particularly Crista and Digby as they both serve their country and due to a childhood of speaking French turn out to be valuable recruits as secret agents in occupied France. Back at Chilcombe the whale theatre becomes a vegetable garden overseen by Flossie, with the help of two German prisoners, before she too joins the war effort in Dorset. Can the Chilcombe estate survive and will the Seagrove family be reunited?

This is an epic piece of immersive storytelling across the generations. Quinn’s writing has a wonderful tempo set against the backdrop of the Dorset countryside and the French resistance. Art, theatre and music are beautifully interwoven into the narrative showing their importance in wartime. At times you feel that Quinn could have taken greater risks and allow a darker side to some of her characters to create heightened tension, but nevertheless it is a warm and thoroughly enjoyable read and the perfect book to pack in your holiday suitcase.

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